You will be touched by this beautiful and inspiring story of a teacher who brought a world of reading to a parent in need. Enjoy this tale of a caring and compassionate teacher I am proud to know.~EMP
In my twenty years of teaching, every so often, a student comes along that amazes me. I teach first grade. I teach many children to read each year. The student of which I speak, however, is not six; she’s twenty-six.
It has been my pleasure and my honor to teach an illiterate adult to read this year. Everything began in the beginning of the school year when I sat down with this woman to have a parent conference. It was at this point that I realized the depth of the situation in that she was not able to read most of what I sent home.
After that day of the conference, I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that there was an adult that I knew that couldn’t read. I felt like there had to be something that I could do to help.
After a week or so I had an idea. Every day I was going to teach reading to a small group of children that included her child. My idea was to invite her to join our group and receive the instruction of beginning readers along with other children.
I wasn’t sure of her skills, but I knew from teaching reading in first grade that we start instruction in the beginning with a review of the letter sounds. We work on reading small words with short vowels. Basically, in teaching first grade reading, the basics of reading are taught all of the way through to the dynamics of the six syllable types. Exposure to most vowel patterns and the breaking down of words into syllables is taught. All of the while, reading strategies are used to help students become independent readers.
My thinking was that if children can accomplish and mediate all of this in one year, they can read most anything. That child may not be the most fluent reader, but can read. It’s all in the practice from there on out. Therefore, I wanted to teach this woman to read in the same time frame as my first graders. I knew in my heart that this is what I needed to do.
It so happened that I had another parent teacher conference very soon after my first conference so that I could propose my idea. We spoke about a few things, and as the conference was wrapping up, I plucked up the courage to begin the process of implementing my idea.
I asked this woman if she would be able to come in every day during our reading group time. I explained that her child would be in our reading group and that I’d love to have her come in to be a volunteer during that time. My intent in asking her to volunteer was so that she would be able to maintain a level of dignity and not be embarrassed about any inadequacies that she might have. What she said next that will forever stay with me. She said, “But, I can’t read.” I replied, “That’s why I want you to come each day. I want to teach you.”
At this point, she had tears in her eyes as well I did. However, that is exactly when the journey began. This woman came in the very next day to receive her reading instruction. From that point on, she came faithfully each day, learning with the children, sitting quietly behind her child. At first, I wasn’t sure of what she was picking up, but I would notice from time to time that she would speak up to identify a word for her child. I could also see her helping her child track the words as we read in group. Time went by for some time. We learned throughout the months of October, November, and December. Every day, she came to reading group, never missing a lesson. I could see that she so desperately wanted to learn.
Around this time, she and I had a chat about her reading. She told me of her struggles in school with a learning disability and feeling outcast from the educational system. She explained that she really just wanted to keep up with her child. She wanted to be able to read with and to her children.
Later, after the December break, we continued meeting again each day during reading group. I asked how the break had been and wondered if she had been reading. She replied that she hadn’t. It was at this point that I had another idea. I asked if she had a library card. She replied that she did not. I said that I would like to take her to the library one day and help her get a library card and look for some books for her to take out so that she could read on her own.
This wonderfully strong woman ended up going down to the library on her own and getting a library card in order to help her child with a science project. We did end up going to the library one day. I took her up to the children’s area because I have always felt it was one of the friendliest and non-threatening places in the library. It also seemed to me that her reading level was somewhere near that of second grade. I knew of a couple of series that would be interesting, yet at a level that she would be able to practice her skills.
We did find many books for her to take home that day. She shared that she didn’t necessarily enjoy reading children’s books, so we looked at some Cynthia Rylant stories that had more mature themes. Then we even happened onto some books on CD. She found one that interested her and checked it out. She even put the paper copy on hold and went down to the library to get it when it came in. I felt like she had connected and accessed a wealth of reading material with which she felt both comfortable and engaged.
Weeks passed. We continued our instruction in our reading groups in the months of January, February, and March. This woman continued to come to reading group each and every day. She always came, even though I was beginning to see, that she was getting better at reading. I knew that she had some prior skills from her school years that she was building upon. It was during the month of March that she told me that the reading was “okay,” but what she really struggled with was the writing.
We then sat down one day and we went over some of the basics of writing. We discussed strategies and connections to the reading patterns that we were learning in group. I could again see that she had come so far in her learning. It was inspiring to be able to give her the knowledge for which she was looking. She was always so positive and receptive to what I was teaching her. She always wanted to be at reading group.
Soon after, I started receiving short little one sentence notes from her about her child. Even one day in April, I received a two sentence note. I was so excited that the connection between reading and writing was being bridged for her. I was also excited about the fact that she was communicating through written language!
She even asked one day to borrow a poetry book that she saw in our classroom book collection. I was again so excited about the fact that she was so motivated.
It was also around this time that I had her come for a session independent of the reading group. I had her read for me, which until this time, she hadn’t done. As I mentioned before, with the children present at reading group, it was important for her to maintain her dignity and gain in her self-confidence. The children always saw her as a reading volunteer; she did do exactly that. There were times that I needed to answer a telephone call or I was called away to attend to an alternate task. I would have her take over the reading of the words of a game of sight words bingo or lead the group in the reading of the word wall words. This is how I had come to not actually hear her read for a period of time.
I was so honored that she would do this in front of me. It was wonderful to hear her read. The excerpt from which she read was quite difficult, probably close to that of fourth grade. As she haltingly read, I was so amazed again that through her quiet dedication to the task of teaching herself to read and write again that she had given herself and her children the most precious gift.
This story ends, with another story. I thought and thought about how to finalize our journey together. I wanted to give her something that would enable her to continue to read. I probably told her a few times in the months of May and June that once she gets hooked on reading that it will consume her and she won’t want to put a book down. I knew that I just wanted to be able to enable her to connect with an author, an author that writes for adults, and tells real life stories full of problems, relationships, and most of all happiness. It was then that I thought to give her a Debbie Macomber book. She is an author that I have enjoyed myself who writes series of books. I thought if I could connect this woman with an author such as this that my reading student would continue to read for herself and with enjoyment.
This woman said one last thing to me, after I had given her such a book. It was our last day of reading group. She said, “The next time you see me you’ll have wanted me to read three of these.” “That’s right,” I said. Then she said, “You’ll be really proud of me.”
I already am I thought. I already am.
Becky Reese is a first grade teacher in Amesbury, Massachusetts.